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Britain and narrative projection in the Indo-Pacific

Hostile reactions to Britain’s announcement of its Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ through the March 2021 Integrated Review were to be expected. Chided as imperial dreaming, the United Kingdom’s (UK) desire to engage with the nations and geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific was mocked for not only its perceived logistical folly, but the hubris that came with it. 

Regardless of its palatability to one’s political and historical senses, it would be difficult to argue that Britain’s increased engagement with the Indo-Pacific has not been broadly welcomed by the region. British achievements since the Integrated Review’s release need not be rattled off here, but their impact – from CPTPP membership and ASEAN dialogue partner status to deepened ties with Japan, establishing AUKUS, and providing urgent humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) – has been so significant to British policy that His Majesty’s (HM) Government declared the ‘tilt’ complete in the ‘refresh’ of the Integrated Review. Now, the UK looks to establish an Indo-Pacific ‘footing’, rendering the region as a permanent ‘pillar’ of British strategic policy. It can be argued that the UK already had a footing in the region – from its participation in the Five Eyes to its basing and defence arrangements in Southeast Asia – yet this footing now has a stronger and more integrated flavour.

But the UK’s Indo-Pacific policy is far from complete, which makes sense given British engagement with the region’s current geopolitical landscape as an independent actor is in its early stages. This is truer for the smaller nations in the region and those with which Britain does not have a strong historical relationship – as it does with for example Australia and Japan. Ultimately, questions remain as to how the UK will leverage its military and diplomatic network in the Indo-Pacific, for its own benefit and the region’s.

One key way Britain can entrench its footing in the Indo-Pacific is through the skilled use of narrative projection. This will require a clear-eyed understanding in Whitehall of why the UK has chosen to ramp-up its Indo-Pacific engagement and what type of region it wants to foster. This needs to be communicated – with unwavering consistency – both at home and abroad. Whether such a reaction is misplaced or not, some in the region and the UK remain sceptical about an enhanced British Indo-Pacific presence, and the onus is largely on HM Government to assuage it.

Expanding the current narrative

As its Indo-Pacific policy has evolved, Britain has maintained an interest in ensuring the region remains free and open, and that countries are not unduly influenced by foreign forces. This is for a host of reasons but primarily to secure British trade with and through the region and that domestic liberal-democratic institutions – were established and embedded – remain strong. It is allies and partners with this likemindedness in working towards an Indo-Pacific which is both free and open that Britain is now engaging with the most vigour.

But there are limitations to this framework. When engaging major powers such as Australia, Japan, or the United States (US), it makes sense for the UK to prioritise geopolitical concerns and avenues for engagement as they are foundational to those relationships and to upholding an open international order. When engaging with certain countries in Southeast Asia or the island nations of the South Pacific, however, a different approach may be required. Many of these nations seek to avoid being drawn into geopolitical struggles between the major regional and extra-regional powers.

With these specific countries, the UK should adapt its approach and instead focus on utilising its resources and leveraging its areas of comparative advantage to have the greatest local effect. This means focusing on challenges such as climate change, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and ocean pollution, as well as non-security related matters. This is not to say HM Government should ignore geopolitics when engaging with these nations – these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Rather, Britain’s position in the Indo-Pacific will be strengthened if it pursues, when necessary, a more country-specific approach which reacts to and absorbs differing regional perceptions and desires.

Refining the narrative

The preference of some countries in the region ‘not to pick sides’ and hedge against both the US and PRC is now, at least on the face of it, an understood position in London and has been emphasised by officials. Understanding this is vital, and acting upon this understanding even more so. In doing this, it is not just about how the UK engages nations, but also who it engages. Refusing to or curtailing engagement with a particular country or group can send the wrong message to other partners in the region and misconstrue British intentions. Furthermore, in attempting to shape regional standards and boundaries, engaging with those who may not share the same aspirations is important to both understanding their view and addressing points of friction. 

HM Government has already started to refine its rhetoric to reflect the needs of smaller Indo-Pacific countries. Emphasis on domestic ‘values’ has subsided, while the stress placed on regional sovereignty and openness has increased. The notion of ‘patient diplomacy’ – favoured by James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, is borne out of this acclimatisation. He and Anne-Marie Trevelyn, the Indo-Pacific Minister, have also been forward in highlighting the importance of sovereignty in the region, both that of nations and their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Moreover, the speech delivered by Trevelyn at the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference focused on Britain’s legitimate interest in tackling food security issues and climate change. 

This approach has been exemplified by the disproportionate effect the two off-shore patrol vessels (OPVs) HMS Spey and HMS Tamar have had in the region. They have been continuously deployed for almost two years, where they have provided urgent HADR, enforced maritime governance and deepened relations with the navies and maritime forces of smaller countries. The flexibility these two OPVs have given Britain to respond credibly to the concerns of the Indo-Pacific has been invaluable.

Entrenching Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘footing’

HM Government should double-down on the importance of national sovereignty, and make this its north star of Britain’s Indo-Pacific engagement. The importance of sovereignty is something which resonates with countries in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of ‘reunification’ (or, annexation of Taiwan). Centring sovereignty is also an approach that close regional partners, such as Australia, are adopting

The importance of sovereignty should also define how HM Government communicates its Indo-Pacific policy to a British audience. The importance of the maritime domain – the Indo-Pacific is defined by two oceans and their respective seas – to British prosperity and security should also be promoted shamelessly at home.

Britain’s position in the Indo-Pacific will be strengthened if it pursues, when necessary, a more country-specific approach which reacts to and absorbs differing regional perceptions and desires.

Moving forward, responding to climate change, which is of particular importance to countries such as Tuvalu and Kiribati in the South Pacific, should be central. Here, Britain is genuinely world-leading, particularly in green finance and renewable (particularly wind) technology. The UK could also encourage and lead new avenues for climate diplomacy that attempt to move quicker than international bodies. HADR efforts, such as as seen in response to the January 2022 tsunami affecting Tonga, are also central to this.

Providing education and vocational training opportunities is another avenue which could be pursued, as is the deepening people-to-people relationships through arts and cultural exchange. High numbers of South Asian – and increasingly Malaysian – students choose to study in Britain, a movement of people that should be sustained and encouraged by HM Government; it further exposes the Indo-Pacific to British culture and, if an international student decides to use their newfound skills in the UK, can lead to the betterment of British society.

The key to this approach when it is preferred is understanding what the specific country the UK is engaging desires. The uptick in British diplomatic missions in the Indo-Pacific will aid this endeavour and should help in deepening more geopolitical relationships, too.

Britain’s integration into the Indo-Pacific has been speedy and relatively well-received. Undoubtedly, it has a stake in the region and should continue to engage with not just the region’s geopolitics, but also the specific concerns of partners old and new.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Senior Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He specialises in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

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